Can Light Therapy Help You Sleep?

7 min read

Last Modified 17 March 2021 First Added 16 March 2021

By Liam Porter

Did you know exposing yourself to light can actually help you sleep? It may seem counterintuitive at first, but light can have a huge impact on whether or not you’ll have a well-rested night.

Using light to help sleep is often referred to as light therapy. If you’re struggling to get some shuteye or you’re currently battling insomnia, this therapy can help you regain the sleep you so desperately need.

This guide will break down everything you need to know about light therapy for sleep. Including what it is, how it works, and what you can expect.

What is light therapy?

Light therapy involves exposure to a light that is slightly different to that of sunlight. The light is usually slightly dimmer and can even be different colours.

Light therapy is normally used to improve sleep and is performed using a lightbox. An individual may be exposed to this light every day at the same time, helping to produce the necessary neurotransmitters and chemicals to aid sleep.

Light therapy can also be used on many different disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression, jet lag, and more.

image of abstract colours to show light therapy for sleep

How does light therapy work?

Light works by tapping into and resetting your circadian rhythms. These are the natural sleeping and waking cycles the body goes through and they work in a 24-hour cycle.

When a circadian rhythm is working correctly, you’ll naturally start to fall asleep closer to bedtime and naturally wake up in the morning. If this rhythm is disrupted or skewed, you may find yourself sleeping during the day or staying up too late.

By exposing yourself to a lightbox during the day, you can start to reset your circadian rhythms. This is because the box mimics sunlight, helping to tell your body it’s time to wake up. This light can tap into the chemicals in your brain, such as melatonin and serotonin. In fact, there is evidence to suggest light is one of the strongest cues for circadian rhythms.

There has been some evidence to suggest light therapy is an effective solution for sleep disorder and depression. Additionally, a meta-analysis in 2016 discovered light therapy to be effective for sleep problems in general, specifically referencing insomnia and circadian rhythms. And if you can’t incorporate light therapy into your routine, simply getting outdoors into natural light can work too. Here’s a quote from a study titled Light as Therapy for Sleep Disorders and Depression in Older Adults:

In warm climates, half an hour of outdoor daylight exposure each morning would constitute an inexpensive, convenient first-line treatment. When outdoor exposure is impractical, one of the available modalities for indoor light therapy can be prescribed.

Read more: The Melatonin Sleep Guide

What sleep disorders does light therapy work for?

Light therapy can be used for a range of disorders but is most effective helping with those influenced by circadian rhythms. In fact, this kind of therapy is particularly effective on sleep onset insomnia, which is when you’re unable to sleep at a normal time.

This type of insomnia can occur from even the most basic changes, such as taking a night shift or from watching too much TV late into the night. From this, you can start to feel sleepy at awkward times of the day, such as 6pm or 9pm.

As a result, you end up waking at strange times in the day (e.g. 2am), which can have a serious impact on your productivity and day-to-day life.

A lightbox can help you to adjust and reset to this type of insomnia. By exposing yourself to the lightbox in the evening, you can wake yourself up, helping you fall asleep later into the evening.

If you find yourself staying up late into the night and waking later (known as delayed sleep phase disorder), exposing yourself to a lightbox in the morning can help reprogram an ‘early bird’ schedule, helping you wake earlier in the long-run.

Light therapy is ideal for people who work alternating shifts or who have experienced jet lag. It can even work on individuals who suffer from depression.

Are there any side effects to using light therapy for sleep?

There aren’t any serious side effects to using light therapy to help you sleep. After all, you’re only exposing yourself to light. However, it is worth noting that some people do experience minor effects.

Healthline states that light therapy can cause side effects such as:

  • Headaches
  • Eye strain
  • Nausea
  • Irritability

If you do find you’re suffering from these side effects, know that they only last for a few sessions. However, if these effects don’t wear off, see your GP for further assistance.

How to choose a lightbox for light therapy

Before you go ahead and invest in a lightbox for sleep, it’s important to first speak with your doctor about any sleep issues you’re having.

They’ll give you more options and tailor treatment to your specific problem and situation.

However, if you’ve been told your issue is circadian-related and advised to get a lightbox from your GP, then it’s good to understand what you should look for.

The first thing to look for is the type of light the box emits. Make sure to look for a lightbox that filters UV light and has a light intensity of 2000 to 10000 lux.

Additionally, make sure the box you choose is not designed for tanning or skin care. The light needed for mood and sleep is different and these are more likely to harm you then help you.

Lightboxes come in a range of sizes, so it’s important to know where you’re going to perform the therapy. Some are more compact than others, so you’ll want one that suits your own needs. However, if you feel a box is too bulky, opting for light therapy glasses can also have similar effects.

Are there alternatives to light therapy to aid sleep?

As well as lightbox therapy, there are a range of other solutions if you’re looking to improve your sleeping patterns and beat insomnia.

These include:

  • Removing blue light-emitting objects from your room, especially during your bedtime routine.
  • Have a good sleep schedule where you have a set time when you wake up and go to bed
  • Resist any urge to nap as this can disrupt your schedule.
  • Limit caffeine intake, especially in the evening
  • Make sure your bed is cool and dark when you get inside
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine before bed

For further assistance, your GP should be your first port of call. They can advise you further on the options available to help you sleep.

Read more: Is Tech Ruining Your Sleep?

What next?

If you’ve been struggling to sleep, light therapy could be a good solution. Studies have indicated light therapy could be an effective method to combat sleep issues relating to circadian rhythms and help reset your internal clock.

Light therapy is best utilised through a lightbox, which is a device that emits natural light. Using this in the early morning and late evening can help realign your rhythms with a healthier schedule.

However, before jumping in and using light therapy, consult your GP. You want to make sure your sleep disorder is related to circadian rhythms before making an investment. Your GP will provide you with the right information prior to any decisions.

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